In the (k)now

2020, Sep 07    

I had a Keep note which read “Post-quinoa”. That’s all. A friend said it during an afternoon chillout session a few years ago and it’s just been kicking around in my mind since then.

There was a time, not so long ago, when people believed that their children would live roughly the same lives as them. If you were a peasant, your children would be peasants. Lords, lords. So on. Things could get worse of course - a lord could become a peasant - but rarely better. At some point this belief was disrupted and replaced by a different belief - that the next generation will, no must, have it better than the current one. This belief in growth is what roughly underscores everything that makes modern people modern and brings the set of problems that we suffer.

There is a dish in the midwestern United State called City chicken. It is, ironically, not a chicken dish at all - but rather pork made to look like chicken. During the 1950s, chicken was a highly sought-after meat because of its rarity. Chickens lay eggs, so it would be wasteful to kill a chicken. Campaigns ran on the promise of a “Chicken for every pot”. Today, as a result of that growth, of achieving that goal, chicken is the ordinary meat. If you think chicken is still fancy, you’re out of touch. We’re post-chicken now. We have been for a while.

I’ve written about growth for characters in the hero’s journey in novels and video games. I’ve also written about growth with respect to showmanship in economies. Struggling against growth, resisting it, fearing it, seems to be a recurring theme in my life. It’s become much more obvious as I start to sort through my own speech patterns and habits and childhood. I hate change and will come up with almost any excuse to keep things the same way they are: my moral values often backpropagating to support my conclusions. Maybe another way to say it is: I’m post-growth.

Growth is unnerving but also possibly thrilling. Stasis is comfortable but also possibly boring. We crave novelty and familiarity at the same time - balancing the two seems to involve a lot of tuning for me, and I’m sure for others too.

“Post-quinoa” stuck around in my notes for so long because it really captured this constant rush to invent the new thing. Twitter is the latest manifestation of this in my life. Everyone is encouraged to quote and dunk on whatever they just saw. This endlessly turning culture of Twitter is captured in that one about a duck and this thread about the trends of the timeline. Adam Ruins Everything does something similar - dropping the newest hottest take gets the Good Chemicals via internet points and perhaps one can parlay that into a revenue stream. Insight truth bombs are like MSG for the brain, and people pay for MSG.

When things get overwhelming in this sphere I want to retreat, “Waldenpond”. I want to go stay in the mountains. I would write and only come back when I feel ready. This is sort of like stopping to catch your breath in a race and reassuring yourself you’ll run faster later to catch up. Enough people have done that in the past that there are defined periphery cultures. These people reject the hierarchy it takes to build “civilization” and built their own non-hierarchical (ha!) organizations in response. Rejection of the race is a cultural value, and their ways of living are arguably different from the madness of civilization. But, it’s not actually a real rest - they have concerns too - because they fear the constant encroachment of the civilizational world system. I don’t fear the world-system absorbing and assimilating me. Maybe I should. I, for one am deeply afraid of becoming a hermit. I am concerned with losing touch with the spin of the world. I’ll go off on a tangent, become this completely inscrutable, esoteric human being who doesn’t get things any more. Others wont get me anymore either! Imagine coming back from vacation to find that everyone is talking about turnips in Olde English. You’d feel…isolated, to say the least. It’s my nightmare. Not just abandoned, but a stranger in a strange land.

This fear is something I felt and conquered several times in my life. I felt it most when trying to assimilate into American culture. The culture itself was changing and different schools carried different varieties. Meannwhile I was learning English and maturing myself - it was all overwhelming. The only way I got through it was by drowning myself in it until I could swim. I don’t think you can really do that with the internet though, since there is firmly no one culture that you can observe. Jeremy Bentham coined the idea of a panopticon - a building where the administrators in the center can monitor every going-on within the institution. Most people imagine themselves as subjects of the watchful eye and recoil - you could be watched at any moment! No privacy! It served as inspiration for the prototypically dystopian all-seeing screens of 1984. Inverting that - placing yourself in the administrator’s seat and being charged with watching all of it, is equally terrifying. Constant surveillance, but also constant vigilance. Being exposed to the internet is something like that - there are now infinite streams of data that you can consume. You can never be truly in the know any more. Profound and constant ignorance is the only state of being available to us. We can choose to be ignorant or not, it truly does not matter.

When we want to preserve something we try to remove as much air and water from it as possible - canning, jarring, pickling are all ways of stopping change and bacterial growth. Meditation gets us to focus on the breath, as a way of managing the continuous change of our world, as the tempo. Seasons set the tempo of life for festivals, harvests, and the economy. What happens when the pace of our lives is completely unhinged from our own internal rhythms and from the cycles of the natural world? John Cage had a symphony that played for 640 years with little change, perhaps demonstrating to us all the different paces our lives can follow. Air, breath, music - all these ritualistic practices around communal singing and breathing feel like clock synchronization. It’s a way for us all, to briefly be in the now together, even if we are on very different pages of the great cosmic book of knowing.

The hermit method synergizes with Silicon Valley’s garage founder mythos. It is reinforced further by stories like Grigori Perelman’s - where you can figure out something fundamental about the world just by retreating and taking stock, writing and exploring all the different pathways of thought that tend to get interrupted in the presence of other human beings. This is, I think, some of the tension between theory and practice. In theory, one can work out everything “important” on a sheet of paper. In practice, you need to argue about the price of a particular component to make sure it doesn’t affect your bill of materials, so you can actually sell a phone. Theory can be worked out from first principles - collaboration has to happen in the moment. Software is at the junction of a field that can be just one person in a shack (math) and one which requires massive intracommunicative organizations to produce something that wont fall down (civil engineering).

Being in the know is, in my opinion, the only way that something gets popular. You cannot retreat to the mountains, cut off the feed of society and expect to come out with some continuation that people lose their minds about in fashion or music. These are disciplines built on inter-subjective notions and so vary wildly from scene to scene. Perhaps software and math are less variable, and less inter-subjective.

There’s this constant balancing act - the ever-reinventing order wants us to produce hot takes, figure out what’s next. When you leave a job they always ask “Oh, exciting, so what’s next?”. I always wanted to respond “Fuckin’ nothing. I’m going to sit on my ass and eat barbecue potato chips until I have indigestion.” But this isn’t an acceptable mode of being for the ever-panicky elites in a Marxian historical narrative. Always on the verge of being replaced by a more productive class, they have to keep finding the next big thing to justify their continued existence. And part of that is controlling and producing streams of knowledge, keeping their thumb on the pulse of society.

David once described this as “You’re running on a treadmill at the edge of a waterfall. And if you stop…you fall.” Oh man, I don’t want to fall, but if it means constantly being in the know? I don’t want that. I’d rather be in the now.